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Google’s self-designed, self-driving car prototype hits the road

Google has been testing self-driving cars on public roads in California for years, but now it’s using cars of its own design. The tiny pod-like prototype unveiled last year is now plying the streets near the Google campus in Mountain View, the company announced last week.

Until now, Google has converted production cars — including Toyota Prius and Lexus RX hybrids — into autonomous test vehicles. The new self-driving car represents the company’s first effort at car design, and one of the first vehicles designed specifically for autonomous driving to be tested on public roads.

The cars have human minders on board at all times just in case. They also have removable steering wheels and accelerator and brake pedals, to comply with a California law requiring that all self-driving cars have some backup form of manual control.

Top speed is also limited to 25 mph, not that these cars look capable of going much faster.

Related: What happens when two self-driving cars meet? They avoid one another

Google is also inviting California artists to decorate its cars as part of a promotion effort called “Paint the Town.” Perhaps putting cute murals on the self-driving cars will make people less fearful of a robot apocalypse.

Up to 10 designs based on the theme “my community, my neighbors” will be selected, and applied to test cars for a month or so later this year. Artwork will cover the doors of cars only, so Google probably isn’t going for BMW Art Car levels of extravagance.

Google says its existing fleet has racked up over 1 million miles in testing. There have been a handful of accidents, but the company says none were the fault of any of the autonomous systems. The test cars have actually proven to be somewhat timid.

While Google’s prototype car will probably remain just that, it may not be long before  self-driving cars arrive in showrooms. Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Tesla have all promised fully autonomous cars before the end of the decade.